21 December 2009

Who will hire science journalists?

The fate of science journalism makes for perennial hand-wringing on science blogs. One of the most recent rounds was provoked by this article, which quoted Natalie Angier (pictured, from 2007), science writer for The New York Times:

“It’s basically going out of existence,” said Angier of newspapers’ science coverage.

This is no real surprise, since newspapers are going out of existence almost as fast. Some of the responses are Neuron Culture and The Intersection.

Some bloggers, particularly those on Twitter, pointed out that the article doesn’t mention science blogging. For some kinds of stories, like analysis of single new articles, scientists who blog do a great service that used to be more the domain of science journalists. But few writers on scientific blogs do comprehensive overviews or investigations.

I would like to suggest two possible homes for the kinds of science journalists who might do those larger science stories.

First, science journals themselves. Some go part way; The Journal of Experimental Biology has an “Outside JEB” section in each issue, which is a little like research blogging posts. Right now, only a few of the big journals – Nature and Science and the like – seem to have full time staff writers. Those writers do excellent work, and bring stories together in ways that I don’t often see on blogs. Elizabeth Pennisi, who writes for Science, routinely does fine writing about biology that pulls together a lot of threads into one cohesive story.

Unlike many other media ventures, science journals don’t rely on ad revenue, and are profitable. It seems to me that a journal that started to do serious science reporting could use it as a major selling point.

Second, scientific societies might start hiring science journalists. A journalist could report of trends in the research fields that professional societies oversee; controversies within the fields; reports from allied disciplines.

Both scientific societies and journals are in the business of promoting science for the long term. Both are fairly stable financially, and both should recognize the importance of having someone to do the synthetic kinds of reporting of the sort that people like Natalie Angiers does.

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